Supporters of the peace process might call them spoilers. They see themselves as realists, who pursue the only policy that is actually implemented on the ground. While Secretary of State John Kerry and his team were busy with shuttle diplomacy between Jordan, Jerusalem and Ramallah, trying to restart long-stalled negotiations, which began in Washington Monday night, Israeli settlers were busy preparing their own diplomatic overtures — in Washington.
At the end of June, Dani Dayan, former head of the Yesha Council and currently chief foreign envoy of settlers, visited Washington and met with the administration officials, think tanks, reporters and even some Palestinian Americans (that part didn’t go that well). Last week, days before the Israeli negotiators, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, prime minister’s representative Yitzhak Molcho and the Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, came to Washington for talks — another settlers’ delegation, lead by the head of Shomron Regional Council, Gershon Mesika, engaged in intensive meetings on the Hill.
They met with about 20 congressmen — mostly Republicans, including Rep. Pete Sessions, Louis Gohmert and Michael McCaul from Texas; Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Trent Franks (Ariz.) and Rep. John Fleming (La.). At the Rep. Eliot Engel’s (D-N.Y.) office, spokesman Daniel Harsha diplomatically said that “as the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Engel takes meetings with delegations from Israel that span the political spectrum. His door is always open to those wishing to share their experiences, ideas, and concerns with him.”
David Ha’Ivri, director of public diplomacy and communications at the Shomron Liaison Office, denies that settlers established a “foreign ministry” of their own that undermines the Israeli leadership’s message regarding the peace talks.
“We do not come to replace Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he says. “But we want the decision makers to hear about our positions directly from us — it’s obvious we wouldn’t need to do it had Israeli diplomats represented them properly.”
They came to warn that the American pressure on Israel with peace talks is counterproductive under present circumstances, and to complain about the European Union sanctions against settlements, that according to the delegation members, many of their U.S. hosts weren’t aware of.
“President Obama and Secretary Kerry see their last term, and it’s important for them to show they promoted some process,” asserts Ha’Ivri. “Kerry came to the Middle East six times — and did he apply pressure! But it’s not right and not natural, that an initiative like this will come from outside. In order to have a healthy process, it needs to be a local initiative. We have a long history of failure of outside initiatives. American pressure won’t bring peace and solidarity — as the misguided European boycott might leave Palestinians who work in settlement businesses unemployed if those businesses close. When they apply pressure on Israel, it only signals the Palestinians that they can raise their demands.”
The delegation members are totally satisfied with the results. “We couldn’t arrange more meetings than we did in the time we had for this visit,” Ha’Ivri says. “We did important work, and it’s only the beginning. We are doing it also in Europe.”
With territorial swaps among the “difficult choices” that await the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, settlers shrug at the threat of another evacuation. They point to the population growth in Samaria, almost five times that of Israel — 10 percent to 1.8 percent, according to the Yesha Council — both due to the birth rates and new people moving into the settlements. So is there a moratorium on construction or is there not?
“Today there is only private construction, not governmental. We are concerned they will try to stop us again, so we build faster,” Ha’Ivri shrugs.
He readily admits that some of the delegation’s hosts expressed their concern with settlers’ plans and actions. “It’s fine — we didn’t expect to convince everybody at once,” he says. “There are organizations, such as J Street and even AIPAC, that tend to speak for all Israelis — and things we were saying were new for many of them. Some congressmen visited Israel several times — but never visited settlements, and there is an interest to do so. We want them to know we exist, our goal is to provide decision makers and influential figures with broader knowledge — so they won’t rely only on what the Palestinians, J Street or even AIPAC say.”
Their problem with AIPAC is that the organization supports the two-state solution, which settlers see as untenable, strategically wrong and potentially disastrous.
However, there is another pro-Israeli lobby that is more in synch with settlers’ positions. Last week the delegation members were seen at the CUFI — Christians United for Israel — annual gathering in Washington, attended by over 4,000 activists. Both CUFI leadership and the settlers are careful to avoid any mutual endorsements. “We are happy about support for Israel of anyone — also Christians,” says Ha’Ivri.
“The fact they came to our summit means they embrace us — but our message is very different from the one they are bringing to the Hill. We didn’t arrange their meetings there,” says David Brog, executive director of CUFI. He notes the summit focused on other issues — rejection of the notion the next president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, and ratcheting pressure instead of engagement; persecution of Christians in Muslim countries; and supporting congressional bills enhancing U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation.
CUFI’s leadership feels it’s a good year for a pro-Israel evangelical lobby. The Israeli prime minister, as always, addressed the summit via satellite — and sent Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau to attend in person. Israel U.N. envoy Ron Prosor complimented CUFI’s work against the delegitimization of Israel, which he called “Chinese torture” for its accumulating damage. Lawmakers were more attentive than ever — maybe because of the Arab Spring’s side effects, and maybe because this year, the lobby crossed the 1 million supporters mark.
“Finally the importance of CUFI is recognized on the Hill,” Brog cheers. “We invited members of Congress to speak at the summit — all seven came. There were letters from others that complained we didn’t invite them. On the Hill this year, it was the warmest reception we’ve ever seen — it took them time to realize that we are a large and serious organization, and not some fringe lunatics — the way that our enemies like to portray us.”
There are polite relations between AIPAC, the biggest Jewish pro-Israel lobby, and CUFI, and, as Brog puts it, “respectful disagreements.” For instance, while AIPAC was keeping quiet about former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon, CUFI launched a direct attack against him, warning that “his record concerning Iran and Hezbollah indicates an unacceptable blindness to the greatest security threat of our day.”
In retrospect, and given Secretary Hagel’s repeated statements of support of Israel, doesn’t he feel they exaggerated? Brog insists that no, he is convinced Hagel’s statements after the nomination were directly linked to the criticism and the tough questions he landed during the confirmation hearing.
How about CUFI’s founder, Pastor John Hagee’s, public warnings against the peace process — when the Israeli government publicly supported it and is engaged in it these days?
“CUFI supports the democratically elected government of Israel,” he says. “If it chooses to negotiate with Palestinians, it’s their business — we don’t oppose it. But any members of ours have personal views. Pastor Hagee is skeptical about the willingness of Palestinians to seriously negotiate. Tragically, his skepticism has proven valid over the years. But he never thought to impose his will on the democratically elected government. Israel is not a banana republic. We do speak against our government pressuring Israel — so why would we seek to apply any pressure ourselves?”
Dan Arbell, former deputy chief of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Washington, currently a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israel Studies at American University, doesn’t think settlers’ delegations will disrupt the negotiations — they are fragile enough without any potential spoilers’ efforts.
“I was in Washington also during the ’90s, the first days of the Oslo process — and even back then the right wing was sending delegations to the U.S., with various campaigns, rejecting the idea of American soldiers at the Golan Heights, etc. It’s not unprecedented. It usually appeals to the far right wing at the Republican Party. I don’t think it will thwart the Obama administration’s attempts to proceed. Settlers are releasing steam, sending delegations, meeting Michele Bachmann — but the ball is not in Congress’ court now. I don’t expect they will cut the aid to the Palestinians, as long as the leadership supports the peace process. There is no Republican majority opposing the peace process, although they can pose some tough questions to the Obama administration.”
As for the chance to actually reach a comprehensive agreement — Arbell says he is pretty pessimistic. “Both sides were literally dragged to the process, kicking and screaming,” he says. “Each side has its own constraints — Netanyahu was pushed to it by the EU boycott and the Palestinians’ U.N. bid.”
The U.S. administration representatives love to repeat they can’t want it more than the sides themselves — but Arbell admits it looks like the Americans indeed want it more this time. Why he is pessimistic, despite Secretary Kerry’s declarations about “narrowing gaps”? Because if mere preparation for the preliminary talks dealing with the framework for the actual talks on the core issues took so much effort, pressure and leaks, it’s hard to expect major breakthrough any time soon.
“There are many obstacles,” Arbell says. “Netanyahu will need a different coalition. There is still a great deal of mistrust between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen. It’s possible, of course, to overcome the obstacles with enough leadership and political will. I personally hope they’ll succeed. But I don’t see that Kerry bases his belief he will succeed where his predecessors failed on some new facts on the ground. It looks like he decided to make it a project and dedicated himself to it.”